Settlement is often an attractive option in Florida car accident cases, because it allows the parties to resolve a dispute without sinking time and money into costly and sometimes protracted litigation. In Alamo Financing v. Mazoff, the Fourth District Court of Appeals looks at one of the main requirements of a settlement offer – that it be unambiguous – and explains that a party who rejects an offer and then loses his or her case may be on the hook for some of the opposing party’s costs and fees.
Mr. Mazoff was injured in an April 2007 incident in which he stopped his car on a highway and got out to assist the occupants of an overturned vehicle. The overturned vehicle was struck by a passing car while Mazoff was helping the occupants and the overturned vehicle then struck Mazoff. Ms. Alvarado-Fernandez was driving the passing car, which she had rented from a company called Alamo Rental at the time. Alamo Financing, a related entity, owned the automobile. Mazoff sued Alvarado-Fernandez and Alamo Financing almost two years later, alleging that the latter party was vicariously liable for the accident because it owned the car and Alvarado-Fernandez was driving it with the company’s permission.
The company offered to settle the claims against it in March 2010 by paying Mazoff more than $13,000. In exchange, it requested that he agree to dismiss the claims and generally release Alamo Finance’s “parent corporations, subsidiaries, officers, directors, and employees” from any and all claims. The company deemed the offer rejected after Mazoff didn’t respond within a month. A trial court later granted summary judgment to the company. Under Florida’s so-called “Graves Amendment,” a car owner who leases the vehicle isn’t vicariously liable for harm that results from the use, operation or possession of the car during the term of the lease.
The trial judge nevertheless allowed Mazoff to file an amended complaint, this time suing Alamo Rental. He argued that the company was liable because it didn’t properly inspect Alvarado-Fernandez’s driver’s license before renting her the car. The trial court also rejected Alamo Financing’s argument that Mazoff should be required to pay its attorneys fees because he rejected the settlement offer, which would have avoided costly litigation. The court said Mazoff had good reason for rejecting the offer: its terms, particularly the general release provision, were ambiguous.
The Fourth District disagreed on appeal. “[V]irtually any proposal that is ambiguous is not enforceable,” the court explained, citing the Fifth District’s 2005 decision in Hibbard ex rel. Carr v. McGraw. “However, given the nature of language, it may be impossible to eliminate all ambiguity in a proposal for settlement,” the court added. In other words, the court said the terms must simply be sufficiently clear to allow the offeree the ability to make an informed decision without needing clarification.
In this case, the court said Alamo Financing’s offer wasn’t fatally ambiguous. While the general release may have been “poorly drafted,” the court concluded that the document as a whole made clear that the release didn’t extend to Alvarado-Fernandez. “Notably, the proposal for settlement named only Alamo Financing as the party making the proposal. Further, the proposal stated that the only party to be dismissed from the lawsuit was Alamo Financing.” While the contract’s expansive language did appear to include releasing claims against Alamo Rental, the court said that wide reach didn’t make the offer ambiguous.
As a result, the court reversed the lower court’s decision and remanded the case back with instructions that Alamo Financing be awarded attorneys’ fees and costs.
If you were injured in a car accident, it is vital that you have an experienced personal injury lawyer in your corner who can help you consider and clarify any settlement offers, negotiate with responsible parties and pursue legal claims against them when necessary. Contact the South Florida car accident lawyers and Anidjar & Levine. We represent clients throughout the region, including in Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach and we are dedicated to helping victims obtain the compensation they deserve.
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